Teaching Writing to Adult English Language Learners: Lessons From the Field

This article presents the results of a survey and follow-up interviews with adult English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors to identify the writing instruction they deliver, the text types they teach, and the time they devote to writing.

Joy Kreeft Peyton
Kristen Schaetzel
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Applied Linguistics
Georgetown University
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

The ability to write texts for academic and professional purposes (i.e., academic writing) is key to the success of adults in U.S. society—in school, on tests needed to progress through learning and into work, and in the workforce. This article presents the findings of a survey of adult ESL about the writing instruction they deliver, the text types they teach, the time they devote to writing and the importance of writing in student placement decisions. Based on the results, the authors identified the following misalignments between the skills needed in the workplace and what is taught in Adult ESL Classes:

  • Types of Writing
    • What’s needed: Argumentative/persuasive and technical/informative texts.
    • What’s taught: Narrative, imaginary, descriptive texts
  • Length of assignments
    • What’s needed: A paragraph to a 10-page paper
    • What’s taught: A paragraph or less
  • Feedback
    • What’s needed: Feedback on overall ideas and their presentation
    • What’s taught: Error correction
  • Modality for writing
    • What’s needed: Word processing
    • What’s taught: Handwriting

To learn more about the instructional approaches to teaching writing in adult education programs, interviews were conducted with a small sample of teachers (n=11) who had responded to the survey. The interviews covered working conditions, student characteristics and instructional practices at different levels.


What the experts say

This study can serve as a practical guide for teachers who want to adopt new practices or modify their current practice to include higher-level, academic writing. Academic writing has specific features and involves approaches that are different from much of the writing that is practiced among adult English language learning and native students at different levels in adult education programs.

Be aware that claims are made about the importance of academic writing that are not supported with citations. There is no critical consideration of the reported practices, and few of them specifically address the unique needs of English learners. 

There may also be a misalignment in the information provided and the general skill level in many ESL classrooms. The instructional strategies and tips provided may not be a good fit for ELLs with beginning writing skills. 

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